Jessica from Stuck in the Book had the amazing opportunity to interview author of ‘First in the Fight”. Read below to find out why the book is about female statues in Manchester, and for a discussion on what the future of feminism is.
If you have ever been to Manchester and looked closely around the city, you will find that like other towns and cities across the UK, there is an evident lack of women statues.
Male statues feature around the city and, in 2014, campaigners from Manchester thought it was about time that the women of this well-loved city were celebrated for their continued hard work and fight for equality. The unveiling of the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst in St Peter’s Square strove to represent the contributions that Manchester women had made not only to the city but also to the rest of the world.
First In The Fight tells the compelling stories of the twenty women featured on the Our Emmeline statue long-list. The book also features some beautiful illustrations of each of the 20 women by the Women In Print (http://www.womeninprint.uk/) collective.
Author and historian, Helen Antrobus excellently brings to life the legacies of these radical women and provides us with stories that continue to inspire the people of Manchester. I caught up with her to discuss the making of the book:
How did you come to write this book?
I was working at the People’s History Museum in Manchester cataloguing items for the centenary campaign. I was mostly involved with Ellen Wilkinson’s story and through this, I became in contact with several activists and people involved in the statue campaign. One of those being Andrew Simcock, co-author of First In The Fight and Manchester City Councillor.
During several conversations, it became evident that there should be a book about the journey of the Emmeline Pankhurst statue and that someone who knew a lot about Manchester’s radical and feminist history should be part of it too. I was put forward by another activist and friend and that is how I came about writing the book.
Yet as we started to plan the book and write down our initial thoughts, we realised that the book was edging towards being more about the women longlisted for the statue rather than the creation of the statue itself. This, therefore, was a brilliant opportunity to celebrate some incredible women who had a huge impact on Manchester and the UK’s history.
Why do you think it is important to write a book about all the women nominated for the statue?
Interestingly, it was the public who picked the nominations for the statue. The longlist of women came from local Manchester people and featured real local heroes that were important to the citizens of Manchester.
I think it is always easy to solely focus on the women’s suffrage movement when it comes to women’s history and yet, we forget the other incredible women that have played important parts in making Manchester the city it is today.
We didn’t just want this book to be a beautiful book that sat on your coffee table, we wanted it to be a book that people could easily dip in and out of. And I think that is the beauty of this book; that it is a great starting point if you want to learn about Manchester women’s history. The book also does a great job in emphasizing how women’s equality doesn’t just depend on your political party, as there are women longlisted who were both right- and left-wing activists.
For many, including me, this may be the first time hearing about these women. What was the research process like for this project? Did you encounter any problems or find out any new information?
This was the first book I have written and even though I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, I had to turn this around in six months, whilst working full-time. This meant I was doing a lot of my research and writing on the 6:30am train.
I guess it helped that I wasn’t writing a full biography for each of the 20 women, I just had to explore the main points about their life and their achievements. Yet any writing is hard when you have a strict deadline to meet.
I think one of the major problems I encountered was the fact that there was a ‘dead rule’ when it came to the long list of nominations. There was a rule that anyone who was nominated for the statue had to be dead and therefore, it left out a lot of inspirational and fundamental women who, in their own right, deserve a statue too.
Also, there was hardly any historical evidence of Margaret Downs and her story. We don’t even know when she was born. But I guess that is the message we can take from her story; that she was a woman who played an important role in the Peterloo uprising of 1819 but there is next to no information available to learn more about her because she, at the time, was considered unimportant.
I learnt so many new things about these incredible women, which made me take a nice break from learning solely about Ellen Wilkinson. Through this experience, I got to delve deeply into the life of Olive Shapley who has definitely become one of my favourites, purely because her autobiography is so honest and encapsulating.
That leads me nicely on to my next question, which is out of all the women featured, who is your favourite and why?
This is such a tricky question because there are so many women featured in this book that I absolutely adore. I think if I had to, I would whittle it down to my favourite five:
Ellen Wilkinson because she was so ahead of her time; Olive Shapley because her autobiography is so brutally honest; Annie Horniman because of her stubbornness and flamboyance; Sunny Lowry because she swam the channel but was attacked by the press because of her ‘scandalous’ swimsuit; and Louise Da-Cocodia because of her medical work and her campaigns to make Manchester a tolerant, kind and equal city.
All these women represent a fight for equality, how much more fighting do you think is still left to do?
I think that we are too quick sometimes to assume the journey is over and to perhaps forget about the journey that women’s equality has made so far. It’s important to acknowledge that we are still having the same conversations as these women were but in regards to different settings and issues.
Of course, there are some amazing people out there who are doing wonders for female body image and women empowerment and it’s important to celebrate this and sing it from the rooftops for everyone to hear, but we also have to remember that gender equality is still very much a thing in the 21st Century and therefore the fight continues.
Yet every action we create and every fight we win is one step closer to making it easier for those to come and for women all over the world to take over from us, the same way we have from the twenty women featured in this book.
As Emmeline Pankhurst once said:
“If we win it, this hardest of all fights, then, to be sure, in the future, it is going to be easier for women all over the world to win their fight when their time comes.”
First In The Fight is Helen’s first book and can be purchased from Blackwells here.
You can also find Jessica’s blog here.